“I’m single and thriving,” declares Anne Eliot, portrayed by everyone’s favourite nepotism baby Dakota Johnson, in the opening scene of Netflix’s ‘Persuasion.’. This is funny; we must understand because she is actually on the verge of tears and drinking wine in a bathtub. She drinks a lot of wine in this movie and sometimes dances alone in her room to Beethoven while doing so. She laments, “now we are worse than friends. We are exes” and warns that she “never trusts a ten!” Casting wry glances directly into the camera à la Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. She even has her own pet rodent (a rabbit as opposed to a guinea pig) to match. “Strap in, folks!” the movie seems to warn us at every turn, “this isn’t your grandma’s Anne Eliot!” Unfortunately, she is decidedly not Jane Austen’s Anne Eliot either.
Austen wrote Persuasion the year before she died and never lived to see it published. Her last published novel is moodier than its predecessors. Much quieter and more barbed than the sparkling romances we usually celebrate her for. But the creators of Netflix’s adaptation seem uninterested in plumbing the intricacies of what is often hailed as Austen’s most mature novel. In fact, they look everywhere except at Austen’s novel for inspiration. Instead, they opt to try and forcibly cobble together Bridget Jones’ Diary, Emma and Fleabag into a smirking, quipping, fourth-wall-breaking Frankenstein’s monster of a movie that must be endured rather than experienced.
Some people have commented that Dakota Johnson is miscast in the role, but I don’t think that’s quite true. I think the modern edge she brings is exactly what the filmmakers envisioned for their Anne. But the vision itself is the problem. The meditative, yearning cynicism Austen wrote gives way to a snarky millennial sitcom lead who is practically begging to be screengrabbed and posted to Netflix’s Instagram. The caption will be something like “POV: my weekend plans” or “how my love life’s going” or some such quip hammering home just how relatable she is.
“Hammering” is very much the operative word here. Watching this film, it’s hard not to feel like it’s insulting by just how stupid it believes the audience is. The anachronisms and modern language feel less like the text has been revitalized and more like we’re being talked down to. The movie is poking us shouting “geddit? Geddit?” How do we understand that Mary Musgrove is meant to be self-obsessed and ridiculous if she doesn’t declare “I am an empath?”
And that’s the crux of the issue. This is a film with no respect for it’s audience, and no respect for the novel upon which it is based. Persuasion is the novel that gave us one of the most famous literary love letters of all time; it constantly emphasizes the value of the written word over the spoken one and celebrates letters as markers of truth and true feeling. In the film adaptation, Anne self-deprecatingly shows off a box of her old letters from Wentworth, along with a host of other paper memorabilia (including, god help us, a “playlist”).
It’s a hollow, mocking scene that’s so set on appealing to modern audiences. Satisified with earning a quick laugh while it tramples over everything the novel crafted. The film does not trust Anne Eliot to carry its story. Nor does trust its audience to understand her, so it doesn’t give us Anne Eliot. It gives us a Lizzie Bennet wannabe. The film does not trust audiences to respond to an Austen adaptation if it’s not defined by a deluge of jokes and pointless anachronisms. Instead, it gives us Fleabag without the emotional depth and Emma without the Jane Austen.
The film isn’t entirely without merit. Mia McBruce is fun to watch as the self-obsessed Mary Musgrove; Cosmo Jarvis is a solid romantic leading presence, and Henry Golding shows up in a cravat. But beyond just being a poor adaptation, this film lacks any real heart. It chases style and aesthetics and forgets anything else. The incessant attempts at humour and wit get more and more aggravating by the minute, the emotional beats the film deigns to include are flat and don’t land. If you want a Fleabag-type heroine for the love of God, rewatch Fleabag. If you want a solid Austen adaptation, watch literally any other movie.
It would have been a nice touch to end on an Austen quote here. But in the spirit of the film, I will instead warp her words in an attempt at humour so that they completely lose their original meaning. I watched Netflix’s Persuasion. Now I am all agony, no hope.